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Book Review: Within the Frame

A bit underwhelmed, I’m afraid

in Book Reviews , Thursday, August 27, 2009

I recently finished reading “Within the Frame“, by David duChemin. Subtitled “The Journey of Photographic Vision” (that’s right, THE, not “A”), it has received pretty much unanimous rave reviews from all quarters. And I’m going to go against the flow.


Let me say up front that duChemin seems to be a genuine, likable character, and his intentions are excellent. He sets out to avoid geekery, and by and large he succeeds, although it would be interesting to see what difference it would make to the book - apart from making it commendably shorter - if he left out the chapter on gear.

But the book has many problems, and for me it was a real slog to get through. First of all, it is far, far too long. Early on, the author makes a joke about repeating the word “vision” too often. Well, that, I can live with - it’s the topic, after all. But worse is the multiple repetition of themes and ideas throughout the book, which verge on hectoring at times. It’s a technique that might work in a classroom presentation, but it doesn’t work a book. The text could be half the length and loose nothing in content.

Next, I found most of the content to be statements of the obvious. The fact that it all boils down to putting yourself in an interesting location, keeping your eyes open, and engaging with the subject isn’t exactly rocket science. My impression is that the book doesn’t really have a clear audience. It ends up a lot more “Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Photography” than I suspect it pretends to be. I was hoping for something a few notches higher.

Third, the scope. This is very much A Journey. David duChemin’s main photographic theme is street / portrait photography in a few far flung locations like India and Cuba, and unless you’re into that sort of thing, the illustrating images are soon going to get pretty monotonous. He makes a half-hearted stab at landscape photography, but he’d have done better not to bother. He doesn’t get it.

Finally there’s the photography itself. Personally, if I ever have to flick through yet another average set of narrow depth of field closeup portraits of elderly asian rustics, it will be far too soon. The book’s readers might have been better served with at least some examples which did not require the author to travel half way around the globe. This is of course highly subjective, but I don’t find David duChemin to be a particularly interesting or indeed talented photographer. He’s certainly better than I am - but that’s not difficult. On the other hand, he has nothing of the skill of, say, Steve McCurry, in drawing you into people’s lives and locations. Whether or not he avoids zoom lenses, the bulk of his photos feel like the work of a curious, detached onlooker with a ticket for the next city in his pocket.

With not only a foreword by Joe McNally but also an afterword by Vincent Versace, not to mention close associations with Scott Kelby - the archetypal gearhead - he’s clearly paid his dues on the networking and backslapping front. As they say, to make a business in photography, first you need to be a businessman. The marketing effort supporting the book is impressive and commendable. But ... well, sorry, but it’s just as well.

I wanted to like this book. After all I paid good money for it. I was hoping it would provide similar insights to two excellent books on photographic vision, Landscape Within and Landscape Beyond, by David Ward. But, at least as far as I’m concerned, it just ended up being irritating.

Oh, and note to the editor: for the non-US market, cut out the cringey God stuff. Please.